There’s no doubt that we live in a smarter world than ever, with devices like smart assistants catering to our every whim and a smartphone in every pocket. But there’s one concept which is gaining steam and is set to come to prominence in 2020: the smart city. It’s an idea which has been around for a long time, and the UK is a pioneer of the concept – but what does it really mean?

What exactly is a smart city?

It’s certainly a nebulous term, so let’s try to crystallise it a little bit. Essentially, a smart city is one which harnesses the power of modern technology to make the city more efficient, cleaner, and more interconnected. A smart city is designed to take full advantage of the so-called “Internet of Things”, meaning that smartphone connectivity and integration will be found in all corners of the city. In the UK, the cities of London and Bristol are both regarded as being at the forefront of smart city technology.

Common features of smart cities

So, what exactly falls into the category of “smart city”? Well, there are a number of elements which count towards the classification, but let’s pick out a few of the most common features:

• Best-in-class fibre-optic internet connectivity
• High-speed mobile internet capabilities – specifically, 5G
• Smart cameras monitored using AI-powered systems for automated assistance for residents
Smart traffic lights which can respond to emergency situations and traffic build-up
• Open and accessible ‘big data’ about the running of the city

The future of smart cities

It’s clear that the world is headed towards a future which revolves around smart technology and the Internet of Things (IoT), but how smart cities fit into this is yet to become clear. There are some critics of smart cities who believe that the concept is too vague to become adopted across the country, but there are others who think every city will be ‘smart’ in the future. The most likely outcome is that smart cities will indeed be a mainstay of the UK and other countries, but that adoption may be slower than currently thought.

What smart city trends can we expect in 2020?

Smart city initiatives will continue to grow and become more advanced throughout the 2020s. Using digital infrastructure technology, such as embedded wireless sensors and Artificial Intelligence, to operate cities in a smarter way will be a vital tool in the battle against society’s biggest challenges. So, what key trends will define smart cities in the years ahead?

Agetech

Global populations are rapidly ageing: the UN has predicted that by 2050, the number of people 65 years or older will reach 1.5 billion, double the amount today. Growing awareness of this demographic time-bomb will lead to a greater focus on using technology to improve the lives of older people, referred to as ‘agetech’.

City governments will look at the ways innovations can help alleviate loneliness, improve health and well-being, and promote exercise.

Initiatives will include using sensor analytics to monitor elderly people at home, alerting carers automatically after a fall. Smart wearables will also collect health data, employing AI to provide personalised old-age treatment.

Low-cost air quality sensing

Air pollution is especially dangerous to the most vulnerable in society, such as the young and old. Breathing toxic emissions from vehicles, industry and agriculture is causing premature deaths through conditions such as heart disease, respiratory infections and pneumonia.

Cities will deploy an increasing number of low-cost, wireless air quality sensors to help combat smog. Installed inside buildings and across the urban environment, they will be used to measure and mitigate harmful pollutants e.g. by diverting traffic in real-time when safe levels have been exceeded. More wearable monitors will also be trialled to increase data coverage and provide personal pollution alerts.

Digital democracy

Another key trend for the 2020s will be the use of digital IoT technology to engage with citizens on all aspects of their urban life. Giving residents a greater voice, and opportunities to participate fully in the smart cities planning process is seen as critical to building a metropolis that works for everyone.

Platforms that provide improved transparency, through open data relating to decision-making, will increase trust in civic life.

The public will be able to suggest policies and novel projects online and vote on them. The ‘co-creation’ of smart cities, will inevitably give rise to the citizen-innovator, or ‘Smart Consumer’.

And the smartest of them all?

So, which cities around the world have embraced these technologies the most? We look at four of them:

Paris

You might think of Paris as a romantic destination, rather than one of the world’s smart cities. But the French capital has taken great strides with smart technology. It is building the Grand Paris Express, which will comprise of 127 miles of automated metro lines and over 60 stations. There will be new electric and gas buses, and plans for self-driving taxis in time for the 2024 Olympics.

Tokyo

It might not surprise you that Tokyo can be dubbed Asia’s smartest city. Take the city’s use of facial recognition technology for identification processes or the stated aim of becoming a zero-carbon emissions city through green building programmes and the widespread introduction of electric vehicles. Tokyo has set its sights high, and in doing so has come to be seen as a leading smart city.

New York

The gargantuan American metropolis has taken positive steps using smart technology, bringing the water consumption of its 8.5 million population under tighter control with tools that allow residents to measure the amount of water which they use. New York also offers ‘smart bins’, which are solar-powered and monitor levels of rubbish, ensuring that pick up is scheduled at optimum times.

Seoul

Seoul is certainly rivalling Japan as one of Asia’s smartest cities. Seoul is one of the best cities at collecting information using smart technology, allowing it to improve conditions for its residents. Everything from traffic to dust levels is monitored, and Seoul drivers can now use a service which can identify the availability of parking spaces all over the city.

Those are just a few of the cities which are pioneers of emerging IoT smart technologies. From London to Los Angeles, the trend is picking up some pace by presenting practical advantages that are hard to ignore.